As the Assad regime, supported by Russia, continues to bombard locations within the so-called demilitarisation zone, Turkish retaliation has proved the strategy could be costly.

On May 6, the Assad regime supported by Russian airstrikes started a limited military operation in the western countryside of the Hama Governate to capture parts of the Ghab plains.

The regime managed to take control over 21 locations including two strategic towns within the so-called demilitarisation zone, which was agreed upon by Russia and Turkey in Sochi to de-escalate the situation in Idlib.

The current military operation by the Assad regime with clear Russian backing is an attempt to pressure Turkey to enforce the Sochi memorandum signed by both sides, while the Syrian regime and its backers continue to violate the agreement. 

To Moscow’s surprise, Ankara has decided to respond instead of backing down in an attempt to remind Russia how costly any unilateral military action in Idlib could be.

The Sochi memorandum included the establishment of a 15-20km deep demilitarisation zone; joint Russian-Turkish patrols; a joint Iranian-Russian-Turkish Coordination Centre and the opening of the strategic M4 and M5 highways to free trade.

Despite the agreement, two actors in Syria were involved and succeeded in sabotaging it.

The Assad regime and groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly affiliated with Al Qaeda, have taken steps to undermine the implementation process. The Assad regime is deliberately bombing Idlib in a bid to prevent a real ceasefire emerging and because it wants to retake Idlib in its entirety, in line with its stated policy of retaking every inch of Syrian soil.

This is part of a broader strategy in which the regime is using military pressure to disrupt Turkish-Russian coordination of the de-escalation agreement, as this agreement has stymied its ambitions.

At the beginning of the New Year, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham disrupted the Sochi memorandum by going after the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, taking the 3.5 million civilians as hostages. In contrast to the agreed terms of a complete withdrawal of radical groups from the demilitarisation zone, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham expanded its control within it.

Turkey had united the Syrian opposition factions in Idlib to counterbalance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham under the umbrella of the newly formed National Front for Liberation, but during the attack of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, this alliance proved incapable of acting together against extremists.

The US withdrawal decision had helped Turkey to win time in Idlib, but as it becomes clear that the Americans wouldn't withdraw but reduce troops, Russia has refocused on Idlib.

Russia wanted to conduct joint Turkish-Russian patrols inside the demilitarisation zone, but this couldn’t be done due to the rejection by the Syrian opposition and the risks involved if the Russians cross to the other side of the frontline. Instead, Turkey and Russia conducted independent but coordinated patrols to de-escalate in Idlib, but the Assad regime continued its strategy and explicitly shelled patrolled areas soon after the Turks left.

Before the start of the ground operations by Russian-backed regime soldiers and militias like the Tiger Forces, the Russian airpower has increased its bombardment of Idlib together with the regime air force, using barrel bombs to target civilian populations.

With the start of the ground operation in the Ghab plains, the Russian hand behind these manoeuvres became undeniable as Iranian-backed militias were wholly excluded from the operation. After initial gains in the first week, the Syrian opposition managed to halt the advance by sending reinforcements to the frontlines and getting supplies from Turkey including guided anti-tank missiles which have proved useful during the eight-year war in Syria.

Additionally, as the Turkish-backed National Front for Liberation fighters returned to their areas after being forced out by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, fighters of the Turkish-trained National Army from the Turkish-secured areas of Euphrates Shield and Afrin in northern Aleppo, went as reinforcements to the frontlines.

With the new reinforcements and supplies, the National Front for Liberation and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham put their differences and hostilities to one side and coordinated their efforts. With the visible increase of guided anti-tank missile usage, the Assad regime has begun to lose several armoured vehicles, tanks and artillery. On May 21, the National Liberation Front and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham started a counteroffensive at night recapturing Kafr Nabudah.

These operations lasted the entire night and indicated that rebels in Idlib could operate and capture a town using night vision and thermal cameras.

Five days later, the Assad regime, backed by massive Russian airpower, started another operation and succeeded in recapturing Kafr Nabudah, but due to the usage of seven guided anti-tank missiles, the regime lost three armoured vehicles, a tank, three vehicles and two artilleries as the Syrian opposition tactically withdrew from the city.

The message given by Ankara to Moscow has been clear; Russia may have the air superiority but pressuring Turkey in Idlib might be very costly. The Ghab plains are the weakest point of the rebel defence line. 

Depending on if the Russians will go further to pressure Turkey, the situation in Idlib might escalate beyond Syria as Turkey has shown that it won’t back down in the region to prevent a new humanitarian disaster. Even the current limited operation has already resulted in the displacement of more than 200,000 people between May 1 and 16, while 20 health facilities, three IDP settlements, and one refugee camp were reportedly hit according to UCHA Syria.

To avoid a new humanitarian tragedy, the United Nations warned, a Turkish-Russian rapprochement and an end to the spiral of violence is crucial. The Russian attempts to add pressure and the Turkish retaliation to increase costs may recede if the two sides can agree on a new de-escalation agreement in which the sabotage strategies of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Assad regime are addressed. Otherwise, the currently limited escalation in Idlib may go beyond Syria and evolve into an international crisis.

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